If they seem like they are too good to be true, they most likely are. That was the central message coming out of the latest FDA sweep of Internet pharmacies. It resulted in the shuttering of 1,677 pharmacy websites for selling counterfeit, substandard or unsafe drugs. Thousands more received regulatory warnings. It was all part of the FDA’s ongoing global crusade — in partnership with Interpol, the World Customs Organization and the regulatory authorities of roughly one-hundred countries — to rein in the multi-billion dollar illicit Internet pharmaceutical trade.
This latest crackdown was the sixth installment of what this international dream team is aptly calling Operation Pangea, a reference to the supercontinent that supposedly existed hundreds of millions of years ago. It involves jointly coordinated inspections of these online peddlers to ensure they are complying with appropriate regulatory safeguards. Apparently, most of them are not.
This is evident not only from the breadth and reach of the FDA’s latest raid. It also comes from a recent study by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP), the industry trade group that supports the pharmacy boards of every state. Of the more than 10,000 online pharmacies the NABP reviewed, it found only 3 percent of them in compliance with U.S. pharmacy laws and practice standards. According to the FDA, the potential consequences of purchasing your meds from one of these unsavory sources can be life-threatening.
The Government Accountability Office reached the same conclusion in its own study released earlier this week. It found the existence of these so-called rogue Internet pharmacies to be “a matter of grave concern” because they may sell products that “have expired; been labeled, stored or shipped improperly; and may even be counterfeits.” The GAO study detailed the difficulty in combating these sites because most of them are located abroad and involve complex organizational structures spread across multiple websites in different countries managed by different groups of individuals. These sites can be created, modified and deleted in a matter of minutes.
It is for these reasons that the FDA has recently launched and is heavily promoting its “BeSafeRx – Know Your Online Pharmacy” campaign. It is designed to raise public awareness of the dangers of buying medicines over the Internet and provide guidance on what consumers can do to best protect themselves from these fraudulent outlets. Most importantly, the FDA cautions, is to stay away from pharmacies that carry any of the following warning signs:
- They allow the purchase of drugs without a prescription or by completing an online questionnaire.
- They send unsolicited email or other spam offering cheap drugs.
- They are located outside the United States.
- They have names that try to masquerade as well-know pharmacy chains such as http://www.walgreens-store.com/ and http://www.c-v-s-pharmacy.com/ which are among the recently condemned sites.
- They trumpet some false connection to Canada, a country perceived to be a safe and economical source for drugs.
- They do not have a licensed pharmacist available to answer questions.
- They offer unusually (and irrationally) steep discounts.
And above all else, the FDA advises, make sure you buy only from a site licensed by a state board of pharmacy or equivalent state agency. The FDA has created a fairly simple state-by-state search tool to determine whether a particular online pharmacy is properly licensed. The NABP has created an equally valuable search tool through its Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites or VIPPS database. This listing includes only those sites that have undergone and successfully completed the extensive NABP accreditation process. The public education website, LegitScript, also tries to help consumers through its pharmacy verification tool that identifies those pharmacies it considers legitimate and those it does not.
So if you still want to purchase your medications online, do not be fooled. Even if the website has the look and feel of a legitimate online pharmacy, which so many of them do. Even if it sounds like it is closely related to a well-established operation, which so very few of them are. Even if it claims to be selling the brand-name, FDA-approved medicines you need. You are exposing yourself to serious risk unless you take the time to ensure that you are dealing with the select few sites that really are who they say they are.